I have seen the way that tree bends. Specifically one of the largest, oldest trees of its particular species east of the Mississippi. I’ve admired how gracefully the tree has aged, from a seed wondering why it grows, to the graceful, weathered, austere presence it is today. I’m sure its days of wondering are far behind it; now it endures powerful storms, lost limbs and branches, but remains deeply, firmly rooted in the rich, riverbed soil.
I also have an idea on how this life ends, that the road ahead does ascend off into the light, the last road on this all-encompassing trip. In terms of philosophizing and theorizing, it helps me to picture something tangible, like a road, or a tree, because I’m part of that landscape as well. And it helps “Present Tense” to talk about studying lines on one’s hands, to connect its thoughtful examination on how one approaches life year after year to aspects of physical reality. This is one of the lessons artists are constantly struggling to learn: how to connect the fascinating realities of the mind with the fascinating realities of the world outside of one’s thoughts and feelings.
I’m reluctant to call “Present Tense” a landmark Pearl Jam song simply because I feel like a broken record, specifically a broken No Code record. But No Code did provide 13 different new directions for the band to travel at a critical point in their development as musicians and as a unit. “Present Tense” to me represents the culmination of Mike McCready’s fruitful obsession with grand, sweeping rock epics, a point from which he then deviated on Yield, but returned to as recently as “Inside Job”. The song moves gracefully from section to section like a suite, building in intensity, diminishing into sparkling guitar flourishes.
The song was a landmark for me as well too, hearing it for the first time just before my senior year of high school, where I was simultaneously advised to both live in the present tense, and sweat my future hard. I listened to “Present Tense” first on headphones, on a hotel bed in Saratoga Springs, having spent the day visiting colleges. The tumult and uplift of that album crystallized in “Present Tense” as thoughts raced through my head about who I was, who I was supposed to be. And not to put too fine a point on it, because phrases like “that song really helped me” usually make my teeth shiver, but “Present Tense”… let’s say it was a fine model, a vote of confidence, a lesson not to re-digest past regrets but to build and grow and evolve and roll like the wave of sound supplied by the band.